Seeking Out Estrangement

One of the greatest challenges for the Jew in the modern world is avoiding sin in a world wherein every pleasure and temptation is readily accessible and even glorified by Western culture. The aggressive marketing campaigns of non-kosher restaurants can be captivating, and the aroma of a treif barbecue eatery that permeates the air can be alluring. The permissive culture and sexual freedoms advanced by Hollywood can be seductive and appealing. And motzei shem rah and hate speech thinly veiled as first amendment rights can be gripping. But the Torah repeatedly warns us to avoid all this. We are to avoid tameh, impure, animals. We are to avoid intimacy with a person who is impure. We are to avoid all things that can lead to impurity, including impure speech.

But all this is easier said than done in the world in which we live. At the end of Parshat Metzorah, the Torah gives us guidance about how to successfully avoid all these obstacles:

You shall put the Israelites on guard (vehizartem) against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them. (Vayikra 15:31)

The Hebrew word vehizartem is tough to properly translate. Rashi, following the Midrash, writes that it means to separate. The Jewish people are commanded to separate from that which is impure. For example, don’t walk down the street that has a non-kosher restaurant on it if you would otherwise be tempted to go inside for dinner. It’s not enough to just not eat the non-kosher food but you need to take additional action to separate yourself from that food. This makes a lot of sense. The focal point is the person, not the item in question. The person needs to remove himself from a potential opportunity for sin. An alcoholic should not hang out in a bar, and a glutton should not hang out in a fast food restaurant. If you avoid the object of temptation, you will be less likely to seek it out and sin.

The Bechor Shor however has a different approach. He writes that the word vehizartem does not mean to separate, but rather it stems from the Hebrew word zar, foreign or strange. We are not just asked to separate from that which is impure, but we are asked to estrange ourselves from it. It must become foreign and strange. While Rashi’s approach of separating focuses primarily on the person, the Bechor Shor’s approach focuses more on the item itself. Learn to view the item differently, learn to see it for what it truly is.

More and more, the modern world takes what is tameh, impure, and prohibited for  the Jew, and puts it on a golden pedestal. Rashi’s approach is to close one’s eyes and stay away. The Bechor Shor’s approach advocates for calling it out as tameh, impure. Don’t be fooled by the fancy marketing and fads of the day, but see the impurities in this world for what they are.  Rather than being allured and enticed by them, reprogram yourself to be repulsed and estranged.

No doubt that this approach of the Bechor Shor is more extreme than that of Rashi, and has the potential for creating a more antagonistic and obstinate posture.  Therefore one must always find the balance between that which King Solomon wrote in Proverbs, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all of its paths are peace,” and the need to be vigilant and steadfast against the impurities of this world.